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Congo Aid Worker Tania Goossens

Monday, 10 November 2008

Sometimes you need to look behind the headlines to find the real story of human suffering. In the wake of the recent atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo we'll be talking live to Tania Goossens from Irish aid agency Trocaire, who'll be giving us an insight into the devastation she sees there on a daily basis. Currently Tania is located in Kinshasa in the western part of DRC near Angola.

Renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo between rebels and government forces has displaced at least a quarter of a million people since late August, causing a humanitarian disaster. The fighting has also resulted in sexual violence against women and children reaching 'epidemic' propoprtions. Goma located on the eastern side of DRC is the area currently in the glare of the media spotlight.

Why is the democratic Republic of Congo in the news now?
Aid agencies say renewed fighting between rebels and government forces has displaced at least a quarter of a million people since late August, causing a humanitarian disaster

Conditions in Goma
Goma is a town of roughly 500,000, with the fighting there is an additional 200,000 people that have come into the city.
Alot of these people are in Internally Displaced People Camps (IDP) (not refugee camps because the inhabitants are native Congoleese). Alot more are trying to stay with friends and relatives in the area. The IDP camps are so vast they can be seen from the air as you enter the city.
It is important to remember that there was a huge Volcano here in 2002 that engulfed the whole city and even today the effects can still be seen. For instance, there is absolutely no infastructure, the roads are merely rocks and electricity and water are only intermittant. In simple terms, the fighting between between rebels and the government has added to the problems of a city that was already in crisis.

Living Conditions in the IDP Camps
Living conditions in the IDP camps comprises tents or plastic sheeting to seperate people. This overcrowding poses a huge risk to public health. Toilets are just holes in the crowd with no soap and food and water must be shared amongst hundreds of thousands.

Aid agencies are trying to provide water for drinking and washing but often there are no buckets to put it in. And when they can provide water they have no soap to clean themselves with. The biggest risk to health is cholera which spreads like wildfire in unsanitary conditions. Young children and the elderly are first to be affected. The hunger that has left people weakened adds even more to the risk of contracting diseases.

For mums in these camps feeding their children is their priority. Breast feeding mothers who have been walking for days will often be too malnourished to produce to milk for their own child.

What are the risks facing women and children?
Apart from disease and hunger there is also the risk of violence.
The ongoing conflict in DR Congo has created one of the most appalling wars on women in the world. Sexual violence has reached "epidemic proportions".

Rape has become a tool of war, spreading HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, destroying families and traumatizing the women who are attacked, and their children who are often witness to this violence or are attacked themselves.
Devastatingly there is a lot of shame attached to this type of violence. Women are stripped of their dignity in front of the friends, neighbours and families. Often the husband will feel powerless in the face of an attack and many times he will desert his wife out of shame.

Children face their own problems as thousands are being abducted and used as sex slaves and child soldiers. 500 children were taken this week alone in a single raid near the Ugandan border.

What most has affected Tania in her time in Congo.

"As a mum in my thirties myself I find the experiences of mothers so the hardest to deal with as I can easily imagine myself in their situation.
A woman I met last year told me of how she was at home with her husband two young children and young baby when they were attacked in the middle of night.
Her husband was brought outside and killed, her children were also taken from her and the baby lifted out of her arms was left in a field. The intruders then raped her.
After the attack she managed to find her baby in the field where it had been abandoned and walk to a pastor's house where she found help. Miraculously she also found her children later. What made this story all the more heartrending was that it was told to me with her toddler sitting on her lap and the worst part of it was that she's now left HIV positive. This type of thing should not be happening period.
Another woman I know was raped and her brave act of keeping and loving her baby has been rewarded with even more heartache. Her child, borne out of sexual assault, is considered to be a child of the rebels and she is now forced every day to protect her 6-yr-old boy whose life is in danger from angry locals.
These are just a couple of examples but the truth is nearly all the women here have similar stories. In the Congo women have no political or economic power and for those that have been cast out of society surviving is near impossible."

What are agencies doing to help?
There is of course the immediate humanitarian response where we are helping to bring food items and non-food items, such as soap, into to the IDP camps. But when, if ever, the people are able to return to their homes they will then need help to rebuild their shattered lives. Whole villages must be rebuilt, schools need to be constructed, homes need to go back up and people need to be supplied with livestock so that they may start to fend for themselves again.
Is there anything our viewers at home can do to help?
. Call on your government to help find a political solution to stop to the violence
. Give whatever you can to Trocaire who will help not just during this humanitarian crisis but also afterwards assisting people to rebuild their lives when the fighting stops.

Geo-political Background of the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast country - nearly the size of Europe - in the heart of Africa. It has borders with nine neighbouring states, all of which have been drawn into its conflicts killing an estimated 5.5 million people between 1998 and 2004.

Many of these conflicts are bound up with control over the country's equally vast mineral wealth, including coal, iron ore, bauxite, diamonds, gold and timber. They are directly involved, too, with the fallout from the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists.

There is now a real danger that these regional wars will resume following the collapse of a peace agreement reached earlier this year and the renewed outbreak of fighting around the eastern town of Goma.
A quarter of a million people have been displaced from their homes in recent weeks
Irish Defence forces in the Congo
First Irish troops deployed in the Congo were in 1960. The unit was the 32nd Infantry Battalion and the men were deployed in Kinvu. It contained 635 troops. In Aug 1960 33rd Infantry Battalion arrived bringing the total no. of Irish troops serving there to more than a thousand. The men were then redeployed to Katanga province.

Tasks were three-fold
. Restoring essential services
. Reassuring the public
. Overseeing the resumption of local trade

11 Irish soldiers were killed by Baluba tribesmen on Nov 9th 1960 in the so-called Niemba Ambush.
Ireland's commitment ended in June 1964. In those 4 years, 6,191 tours of duty were completed.
At the moment 3 Irish Officers are based in Kinshasa on an unarmed observer mission entitled Monuc.
They work on the UN Headquarters staff.

Trocaire phone number:
Republic of Irl: Callsave 1850 408 408 N Irl: 0800 912 1200
For more info. see

More info on Congo
Fighting in the DR Congo has been continuous since its creation.
. 1998 - 2003 Last war in DR Congo involved neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Rawanda.
. 2003 UN involvement leads to ceasefire.
. 2006 first elections in 45years overseen by UN.
. Jan 2008 Peace agreement signed by Congolese Govt. and rebels.
. Aug 2008 Peace agreement broken by rebels who claim Govt. have not kept agreement promises.
. Since Aug 2008 ¼ million people have fled violence.
. Since Aug 2008 45,000 die each month from the effects of war.
. Oct 2008 Temporary ceasefire announced by rebel leader but fighting continues in Goma